NASA Selects SBIR Projects to Enhance Manufacturing on ISS

NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams works with the WetLab-2 system aboard the International Space Station. WetLab-2 is a research platform for conducting real-time quantitative PCR for gene expression analysis aboard the ISS. The system enables spaceflight genomic studies involving a wide variety of biospecimen types in the unique microgravity environment of space. (Credit: NASA)
NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams works with the WetLab-2 system aboard the International Space Station. WetLab-2 is a research platform for conducting real-time quantitative PCR for gene expression analysis aboard the ISS. The system enables spaceflight genomic studies involving a wide variety of biospecimen types in the unique microgravity environment of space. (Credit: NASA)

NASA has selected five proposals designed to enhance activities aboard the International Space Station for Small business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I awards.

Three of the proposals would enhance manufacturing aboard the orbiting laboratory. A fourth proposal would recycle wast plastic for 3D printing, and the fifth would improve the monitoring of air quality.

The five proposals include:

  • Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing (SPACEFORM)
  • Orbital Fiber Optic Production Module
  • Sintered Inductive Metal Printer with Laser Exposure
  • ERASMUS: Food Contact Safe Plastics Recycler and 3D Printer System
  • MEMS-Based Sensor for Monitoring Cabin Air Quality on the ISS

Full descriptions of the proposals follow.

Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing (SPACEFORM)
Subtopic: International Space Station (ISS) Utilization

Small Business Concern
FOMS, Inc.
San Diego, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Dmitry Starodubov

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

To address NASA need in continued cost efficient International Space Station (ISS) exploration FOMS Inc. proposes to develop and deploy Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing (SpaceFORM). The new design of the module will be used on board of ISS initially to process the perspective fluoride glass compositions for optical fiber communications with intent of defining the technical details of the roadmap towards the first volume manufacturing capability on orbit. The unique property of microgravity of improving glass composition properties originally discovered by NASA scientists will be utilized for commercial and cost effective manufacturing of optical fibers with unique properties that would benefit a wide range of applications down on Earth. With high value of optical fibers per unit weight the goal of the development is to drive the expansion of space capabilities through commercially attractive and profitable manufacturing on orbit.

The Phase I development will be focused on defining the path for implementation of manufacturing capability on board of ISS. The Phase II will lead to demonstration of the complete hardware and software solution for fiber production in orbital flight environment.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The key value of the volume manufacturing capability on the orbital platform of ISS through the proposed effort is the unique opportunity to kick start the commercially driven expansion of the humanity in space through the profit based utilization of the abundant resource of microgravity for material processing. The developed logistics, infrastructure, and operational experience of remote orbital manufacturing will be critically important for sustainable orbital presence and further expansion of in-space science and technology. The approach will leverage existing ISS facilities to extend NASA leadership in facilitating commercial space exploration. The resulting new glass materials with wide transmission range from ultraviolet to midwave infrared and optical fibers will set the platform for novel optical devices and systems for remote sensing and communications as well as novel fiber laser systems with high standard of safety, reliability and affordability.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The opportunity to expand the highly reliable and efficient all-fiber laser sources into ultraviolet and midwave infrared spectral regions will dramatically widen the range of applications for industrial fiber lasers. The new applications will include environmental and health diagnostics, plastics processing, 3D printing and many others. The defense and security industry will benefit with improved detection of harmful substances and airplane protection from proliferating heat seeking missiles. The new applications that utilize the ?fingerprint? spectral range would allow to specifically target the desired chemical compositions in both surveillance and chemical processing. The promise to decrease the insertion loss by an order of magnitude compared to currently installed optical fibers will have revolutionary impact on internet expansion, optical communications and data storage.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Microfabrication (and smaller; see also Electronics; Mechanical Systems; Photonics)

Orbital Fiber Optic Production Module
Subtopic: International Space Station (ISS) Utilization

Small Business Concern
Physical Optics Corporation
Torrance, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Kenneth Levin Ph.D.

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Physical Optics Corporation (POC) proposes to develop the Orbital Fiber Optic Production Module (ORFOM), which addresses NASA’s needs for sustainable space operations and full utilization of the International Space Station (ISS). ORFOM is an orbital scientific payload that will be capable of optical fiber draw in zero gravity onboard the ISS, and specifically “ZBLAN” fluoride glass fiber which is capable of transmission from ultraviolet (UV) to mid-wave infrared (MWIR). When produced on Earth, ZBLAN glass fibers exhibit excessive loss due to crystallization; however, this crystallization can be suppressed in zero gravity. Low down-mass and the high value of low-loss ZBLAN fiber make it an ideal candidate for commercial ISS utilization. During Phase I, we will design and assemble a prototype fiber draw system that will have the size, weight, and power (SWaP) to fit into a NanoRacks ISS payload bay. We will also demonstrate a novel fiber draw process using an in-situ coating and a method to start the fiber draw from a preform that can be used in zero gravity. In Phase I, POC will develop a compact Technology Readiness Level (TRL)-4 version of the ORFOM, and formulate a preliminary Mission Plan, which will be implemented in Phase II. We will also explore commercial applications such as rare-earth-doped fiber for fiber lasers.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The primary NASA application of the proposed ORFOM module is commercial product development and manufacturing onboard the ISS. Such commercial utilization of ISS capabilities will ensure continuous expansion of critical manufacturing capabilities on orbit. In combination with up/down-orbit delivery of materials, commercial development of ZBLAN optical fiber manufacturing will serve as a backbone for evaluation and implementation of the next-generation of manufacturing capabilities onboard the ISS. The resulting ZBLAN optical fiber product of ORFOM will have unique optical transmission, from UV to MWIR, which can be utilized in NASA’s remote sensing, hyperspectral imaging, atmospheric monitoring, and environmental monitoring applications. In addition, ORFOM’s rare-earth-doped single-mode ZBLAN fibers will make possible a new generation of high power, high efficiency eye-safe lasers for remote sensing and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The commercial applications of the ORFOM low-loss ZBLAN fiber will include infrared countermeasures for protection of military and civil airborne platforms from heat-seeking missiles, eye-safe fiber lasers for medical, industrial, and military applications, and next-generation optical communications. The immediate need for MWIR laser sources will be addressed through the active ZBLAN fiber manufacturing on orbit, which would allow fiber laser manufacturing for the mid-IR spectral range. Low-loss MWIR transmitting fibers will enable fiber energy delivery for emerging quantum cascade lasers for remote optical sensing and material processing applications, thereby expanding overall industrial capabilities in process control, safety, and environmental monitoring. The possibility of low loss ZBLAN fibers beyond the existing state of the art can also revolutionize optical communications, and have use as 1.3 micron telecom amplifiers. The aerospace market represents the most significant market for doped fiber lasers emitting in the eye-safe 1.5 to 3 micron region, while the medical industry forms a major market for portable diagnostic equipment.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fiber (see also Communications, Networking & Signal Transport; Photonics)
  • Microfabrication (and smaller; see also Electronics; Mechanical Systems; Photonics)

Sintered Inductive Metal Printer with Laser Exposure
Subtopic: International Space Station (ISS) Utilization

Small Business Concern
Techshot, Inc.
Greenville, IN

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Eugene Boland

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 1
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The proposed innovation is a 3D metal printer, which offers the unique ability to fabricate metal components and tools in space. The proposed system will accomplish this task through the utilization of a two-stage filament melting process whereby a metallic filament is first heated to Curie temperature through induction and then deposited on a build platform where it is fused to the previous layer by exposure to a low energy laser. This new unique process is known as Sintered Metal Printing with Laser Exposure (SIMPLE). Induction heating is not entirely new to Fused Deposition Manufacturing (FDM). There has been recent research into the integration of an induction coil into the “hot end” of a plastic filament FDM printer. The induction coil surrounds the metal nozzle, known as the “hot end” and inductively heats the nozzle when an AC current is applied. The nozzle then heats and melts the plastic filament allowing it to be extruded onto a platform where a part is formed. The use of induction heating, when printing with a metal filament, is similar but the induction coil heats the wire filament directly as it passes through its center. This system offers faster melt times resulting in faster feed rates, lower mass resulting in quicker more accurate printer head movements and lower overall power consumption. Conceptually, the wire filament will not be heated to melting but heated to the Curie temperature and laid as a hot filament on the build platform. To gain adherence between deposited layers, a low energy laser is used simultaneous to the layering process to heat and fuse adjacent filament layers.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Government customers will initially be from NASA, where it should be of keen interest to the Advanced Exploration Systems division and to scientists seeking to take advantage of ISS materials science research opportunities through NASA Research Announcements. Through its Space Act Agreement, its IDIQ contract and its role as a CASIS implementation partner, Techshot will offer both the SIMPLE equipment and the associated services required to conduct materials research and processing in microgravity aboard NASA vehicles.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

In parallel, Techshot will market SIMPLE to federal government agencies beyond NASA. The company has established excellent relationships with several branches of the Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Science Foundation. Besides space-based commercialization, Techshot’s business model includes the terrestrial commercialization of technology by the maximization of the company’s IP assets, many of which have been derived from the SBIR program. In essence, Techshot’s terrestrial commercialization strategy is to secure patents for technologies with the greatest potential for commercial success, then form start-up companies to which the technology is licensed. For example, Techshot Lighting, LLC successfully manufactures and markets an LED tent lighting system to military customers that derived from Techshot SBIR contracts with the Army.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Lasers (Machining/Materials Processing)
  • Metallics
  • Processing Methods
  • Structures

ERASMUS: Food Contact Safe Plastics Recycler and 3D Printer System
Subtopic: International Space Station (ISS) Utilization

Small Business Concern
Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell, WA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Rachel Muhlbauer

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

One of the goals of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) from 2012 is to “utilize the ISS for developing the systems and protocols necessary to humans to venture beyond low Earth orbit for extended durations”, and with the push from Congress in 2015 to build a deep space habitat for a Mars mission by 2018, the goals of HEOMD are increasingly important to meet. ERASMUS will enable these goals by providing a technology suite which is both a trash recycling unit and a microbial sterilizer. The ERASMUS technology suite contains a plastics recycler, dry heat sterilizer, and 3D printer that accepts previously used utensils, trays, and food storage containers, sterilizes these pre-used materials, recycles them into food grade 3D printer filament, and fabricates food contact safe 3D printed parts. This effort intends to minimize the requirements for resupplying and/or storing excess wet wipes, utensils, food containers, and waste. It also intends to improve astronaut health and safety by providing utensils which are truly sterile and free of harmful contaminants for long duration missions. In the phase II effort, we will further enable the goals of HEOMD by expanding ERASMUS to provide a medical grade 3D printer.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The proposed ERASMUS technology will find use on the ISS and on any future long duration manned mission as a means to promote astronaut health and safety as well as lowering mission cost and trash generated by providing a means to create needed parts while in space. TUI anticipates that the expansion of ERASMUS into medical grade 3D printing in the Phase II effort will further the need for ERASMUS on the ISS, long duration missions, and on manned habitats.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

TUI expects that the advancements made to 3D printing in order to create food contact safe sterilized materials will be ideal for the DoD to support soldiers in remote locations where resupply is limited. We also anticipate this technology to be a game-changer for people with little access to water. In the Phase II, we plan to explore the possibility to extend the technology to medical grade 3D printing which will have an even more widespread impact across the globe and in space. Medical facilities will be able to print sterile implants and surgical tools on demand, rather than requiring storage or waiting for the delivery of these devices.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Food (Preservation, Packaging, Preparation)
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Processing Methods

MEMS-Based Sensor for Monitoring Cabin Air Quality on the ISS
Subtopic: International Space Station (ISS) Utilization

Small Business Concern
Aerodyne Microsystems, Inc.
Santa Clara

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
David Woolsey

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 5

Technical Abstract

In this Phase I project Aerodyne Microsystems Inc. (AMI) will investigate the feasibility of a miniaturized, low power, and inexpensive sensor to provide real-time measurements of particulate matter (PM). The MEMS-based instrument would be suitable for monitoring indoor aerosols in spacecraft cabins such as the ISS and would offer significant improvements over legacy solutions including reduced form factor and lower power consumption.

The system utilizes a hybrid detection technique to monitor aerosol sizes from 50 um to 10 nm. For PM smaller than 2.5 um, the systems employs the thermophoretic deposition of particulates from a sample stream onto a thin-film bulk acoustic wave resonator (FBAR), and determines the mass deposited by measuring the frequency shift of an electronic oscillator.

PM larger than 2.5 um (including lint and fibers) is optically measured with a novel detector configuration. The proposed technique is suitable for both spherical and non-spherical aerosols.

The Phase I project will design, prototype and test key modules of the instrument, simulate and analytically model device behavior, develop interface and control electronics, and develop novel techniques for aerosol sampling and handling.

AMI’s proposed monitor is portable, offers an intuitive user interface, requires minimal maintenance, and can maintain calibration for extended periods of time. The platform requires no volatile working fluid, operates in low gravity, and offers the ability to log data for longer-term indoor air quality surveys.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The proposed aerosol sensor could be used to improve and study the air quality on the International Space Station. The technology could complement work done with the NASA Dust and Aerosol Measurement Feasibility Test (DAFT) and Smoke Aerosol Measurement Experiment (SAME-R).

AMI’s aerosol monitor could be used for novel, low-weight airborne sensor platforms in unmanned aircraft. Applications include atmospheric measurements of aerosols and collection of air / ash samples from volcanic plumes. Such measurements might complement Lidar and Doppler radar data taken with the Aerosol, Cloud, and Ecosystems (ACE) project.

Because of the MEMS sensor’s inert physical-chemical properties, the instrument functions over a wide-range of harsh temperature, power, and pressure conditions, can withstand high radiation and impact stress, and also operates without gravity. The sensor is suitable for deployment on planetary and lunar missions, and for operation in other crew exploration vehicles. It could be useful for balloon or surface based measurements of the atmosphere on Mars or Titan.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

PM is one of the leading global risks for morbidity. There is an urgent need for inexpensive devices that monitor PM pollutants such as diesel exhaust, combustion sources, environmental tobacco smoke, power plant emissions, and nanoparticles. The proposed technology has important societal impact by enabling those seeking to improve air quality and reduce the health impacts of airborne PM in the environment, home, and workplace, and by reducing the cost of collecting airborne PM pollution data.

The proposed real-time MEMS PM monitor provides a compelling value proposition by offering stand-alone operation and an order of magnitude reduction in size and power and lower cost in comparison to existing aerosol mass monitors. Markets for the instrument include indoor air quality monitoring, wearables, IoT, monitoring in aircraft and automobiles, industrial hygiene, and power plant monitoring. The 2015 worldwide addressable market for the technology is over $300 million. Several leading companies have written formal letters of interest in the technology.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Chemical/Environmental (see also Biological Health/Life Support)
  • Circuits (including ICs; for specific applications, see e.g., Communications, Networking & Signal Transport; Control & Monitoring, Sensors)
  • Detectors (see also Sensors)
  • Emitters
  • Health Monitoring & Sensing (see also Sensors)
  • Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) and smaller
  • Optical/Photonic (see also Photonics)